Thursday, May 22, 2008

International relations

My husband and I got in a pointless argument about babyproofing.

The problem is that I, ever the prudent mom, have in my head a list of unresolved dangers in our household. The list gets shorter all the time, but I still worry about the windows, the changing table that a toddler could tip over by standing on their toes and hanging from the ledge, and the mean-looking corners on our coffee table.

I keep coming up with improvised security solutions, since the off-the-shelf babyproofing gadget meant for the task is either ineffective or unavailable. Some of my solutions have worked, such as the Ikea cabinet over the refrigerator for storing cleaning supplies. Some, like the Great Window Disaster (an ongoing saga, so stayed tuned), have been rather less successful.

I bought a roll of adhesive foam at the BHV today and left it on the coffee table. Later I planned to somehow cut it up into useful shapes and stick it to the scary wooden corners. My husband saw it when he came in the door, and skeptically and disdainfully started to quiz me on my plan of action.

I didn't have much of a plan, so I got a bit touchy. I think I ended up telling him that he could either approve of the foam and my babyproofing efforts or drive his son to the emergency room when he split his head open. Delicate and thoughtful, no?

Later, when I apologized to him, I said, "Well, you know me. I like to jump into things and figure them out as I go along." I thought, cringing, of how I had attacked the window with my power drill.

"That's normal, you're an American," he said cheerfully. "Me, I consider things carefully for a very long time, and think about them for so long that sometimes, finally, I do nothing."

"That's normal, you're French."

And thus we state the stereotypical yet fundamental truth of Franco-American relations, n'est-ce pas?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Translator needed

Le Petit takes after me. And my husband. And just about anyone in the family, in that he has a whole lot to say.

Good mornings start with babbling over the baby monitor, usually a sleepy "da da da da daaaa." When he's more awake, he'll start a chorus of "tika tika tika tika," and when he's ready to get up and take on the world, he'll stand up in his crib and hum scales as he jumps and down on the mattress. (Bad mornings start with crying at six or seven o'clock, but never mind that.)

His vocalizations are more and more complex, but still don't approach anything comprehensible to any of us mere adults.

He does repeat one phrase, randomly and often dreamily, that I hear as a French "c'est quoi ça?" ("What's that?") and my in-laws hear as an English "My goodness!" We all repeat back what we think we hear, pronounced poorly, which probably adds to le Petit's confusion.

"Doesn't anyone around here speak Baby?" he must ask, then sticks to shrieking when he really wants to be understood.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Born-again French

Yesterday I went to city hall to get a copy of le Petit's birth certificate.

French birth certificates fill an entire printed A4 page and seem startlingly verbose to an American. In addition to the full name, date, time and place of birth of the child, the parents' address, professions and their dates and places of birth are also listed. Dates are fully written out in text, so le Petit was born le douze juillet deux mille sept à vingt trois heures cinquante et une minutes. Whew.

It always gives me a little jolt to see my date and place of birth written out in French on an official document. Née le seize décembre mille neuf cent soixante seize à Seattle, Etat de Washington, Etats-Unis-d'Amérique. It is as if the all-knowing French bureaucracy was there at my mother's bedside taking notes. This little baby may look American, but she's really French; it will just take almost thirty years and marriage to a French citizen for our paperwork to catch up.

When I became a naturalized French citizen four years ago (without giving up my American citizenship, which remains important to me), I was issued a French birth certificate, where both of my parents names, dates and places of birth are listed. When I first held a copy in my hands, I read it over and over to try and assimilate all that it meant: I was truly French, my parents were now data points in some great database of la République Française, and twenty-eight years after the fact my birth was freshly recorded as if I were born in Paris yesterday.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bricolage blues

Once upon a time we lived in a cozy, two-family house in the suburbs of Boston. We lived on the bottom floor, with a sunny kitchen, solid, well-worn hardwood floors, and a breezy back porch. Our landlords, who were also our upstairs neighbors, gave us free reign of the backyard, let us plant our own vegetable garden and use their gas barbecue. I remember long, lazy summer evenings spent outside over hamburgers and beer, and winter nights spent watching the snow pile up from my warm perch on the couch under the living room window. When I'm asked what I miss about the US I realize I'm so happy here that few things come to mind, but that house is one of them.

In addition to being friendly and generous, our landlords were about as responsive as one could dream. The husband was a plumber and could fix just about anything in less time than I could explain what was broken. He dismantled and repaired our garbage disposal in fifteen minutes one evening after dinner (I'd assured him it wasn't urgent, but no matter!), and when our water heater went out one morning, he bought and installed a new one before the end of the afternoon. We were truly spoiled.

So when we moved to France into a large, impersonal apartment building, I knew the hassles we would face when something broke would be somewhat of a shock. It was bad enough when we were renters and I had to negotiate repairs through the gruff building super. Now we own the place, and everything from finding qualified and not too crooked specialists to scheduling the work to negotiating the cost is up to us. After almost five years as an expat, it is one of the only things that still makes me feel like a bumbling and incompetent outsider.

To the extent we can we try to do stuff ourselves, but born do-it-yourselfers we are not, and there's always the possibility that it ends in disaster. So it was when we tried to install a lock to prevent le Petit from opening wide our sixth-floor bedroom window. The drill bit broke inside the aluminum window frame and the window was effectively locked shut permanently. Last week I finally worked up the nerve to find a guy to come over and take a look.

It went a little like this:

He came, he tugged on and frowned at the window, he told us that it couldn't be fixed but a new one could be installed for a mere 1300 € plus tax. I believe that it can't be fixed, for I've turned the problem over in my head enough, and the window he proposed as a replacement would have a child security feature built-in. However, 1300€ is a lot of cash, so we told him we'd wait for a more detailed estimate (and get some other estimates while we were at it).

Today he showed up, still with no detailed estimate, but ready to saw the window open for us.

Thirty minutes and much sawing and frowning later, large pieces of aluminum decorate my bedroom floor and the window opens but no longer latches shut. For this I was charged 80€. But now that the days are getting hotter, I'm grateful to no longer be without ventilation. I'll tape it shut with duct-tape when the need arises.

He claimed that for a detailed estimate he'd have to take the window with him. I may be naive and bricolage-impaired, but I saw through that one at least and said no. In the meantime, one of my husband's colleagues kindly informed us that most homeowners insurance will pay for a replacement even if you are the idiot who has broken the window. So we called our insurance and they're sending someone over for an estimate Wednesday, and I've got a third person coming tomorrow.

The good news is that with every one of these homeowner misadventures I feel smarter about it all. We've repainted, had our bathroom remodeled, and installed hardwood floors. Since we bought the place we have learned how to paint, how to ask smart questions about estimates, and how to fit all of our belongings into the basement, kitchen, and bathroom so that carpet can be ripped out. So it gets easier.

I'm sure this window fiasco will teach me something, even if it is just some window-related French vocabulary.

In the meantime, I'm headed on a pilgrimage to the BHV to ask the bricolage gods to take pity on me. And buy some fun stuff for me, too.

(For the record, we of course follow the common sense rule of not leaving le Petit alone in a room with an open window, but a possible fall scares me more than just about anything. So, I'm looking for a way to securely block the window open just a few inches, well within the security parameters to prevent him from falling yet allowing us to ventilate our southern-exposed apartment without me feeling terrified. The new window will be an oscillo-battante, which is kind of a cool concept that I don't believe exists in the US: one side of the window can be opened up a few inches at the top then blocked in place.)

Vive les vacances

As of today I am officially on vacation.

An administrative mix-up meant I had to take off or lose two weeks of vacation in May, and since we have to pay the nanny full-time whether she's looking after le Petit or not, I decided heck, moms need breaks, too! So this week, le Petit stays with la nounou and I get some time to myself.

Unfortunately, I'll be spending most of this time taking care of various and sundry administrative items, including:

1) Arranging to fix the window we broke in The Great Babyproofing Misadventure
2) Finding a translator for my American drivers license
3) Applying for le Petit's French passport
4) Buying tickets for our first family trip back home to Seattle
5) Hemming pants and resewing buttons
6) Ordering prescription sunglasses
7) Dusting
8) Thoroughly cleaning the kitchen

Yes, my Parisian life is nothing short of glamorous.

I will be doing a few fun things too, of course. I'm looking forward to:

1) Going to the BHV this afternoon
2) Having lunch with my husband in a fancy restaurant without having to stoop to pick up toys from the floor
3) Finishing the weaving project that has been languishing on the loom
4) Buying myself some elegant make-up at Printemps
5) Going out for a run, and taking a nice, long bath afterwards
6) Catching up on the six month backlog in le Petit's baby album
7) Writing a blog post every day

Of course, I only have four days off, as Wednesday is Le Petit Day, just as it is every week. But well-rested and relaxed, I think I'll have the energy to make that day more fun for both of us. If the weather is nice, maybe we'll go for a picnic.

Next week we're off to the Gers, and I'll take the computer and try for once to write an interesting description of my travels.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

I have no more clever titles for posts about sleep

Those who are sick of reading endless posts about infant insomnia are asked to bear with me. I have some more interesting topics in mind, but I need to be a bit better rested to devote any creative energy to them.

In the meantime, I must complain about sleep.

Or lack of sleep.

It is ten-thirty and le Petit has already woken up twice. I can deal with this, because, well, I'm still up and aside from whining about sleep deprivation on my blog, I have nothing better to do. Baby comforting duty even got me out of doing the dishes. But last night he woke up at midnight only to fall back asleep at two-thirty, and over the weekend he treated us to a one-to-four am dance party and a ten-to-one soirée on two separate occasions.

He's teething, I think, because sometimes when I try unsuccessfully to nurse him back to sleep he bites me. The last time he did this was just before his four upper teeth came in. So far, thankfully, he hasn't chomped down that hard, just hard enough for me to cry out an indignant "ouch" and end the feeding. When nursing doesn't get him back to sleep--or proves too hazardous--the only solution is to pace endlessly around the room with him in our arms. He's getting heavy, and my patience is wearing thin.

I secretly feel that on nights when I keep my cool, like last night, I earn some sort of cosmic mothering do-good points. I usually use them up by grumping at my husband about some pointless subject the next day.

Letting le Petit cry is no solution, for the uncontrolled sobbing and tossing about just leaves him more panicked and awake. So I grin and bear it, knowing his and our trials are finite. At some point he'll either sleep through the night or go away to college.

In the meantime, you ask, he's asleep right now so what the hell I am doing awake?

Good question. Good night.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bag Lady Part II

My husband bought a giant new backpack over the weekend.

And yesterday, I finally talked myself into running at work over lunch for the first time since the end of my maternity leave. I decided the only way I could get my running gear, shoes, towel, and my breast milk cooler to work in the RER commuter train was to stuff it all into the backpack and go.

I already carry a hip-looking but enormous suede satchel of a purse, so I knew balancing it all on my lap would be challenging. No matter. I was determined.

Loaded up, I looked like I was ready to trek across the Pyrenees. The top of the pack reached well over my shoulders, completing my chic look.

The RER platform was crowded five deep when I arrived, and after waiting for all before me to push through, I just barely found space to jump into the train before the doors closed. I stood in unstable equilibrium holding my backpack against my knees and my book tucked under my arm.

Which book, you ask? Roads to Santiago by Cees Nooteboom. Those commuters who looked at me closely must have scratched their heads, wondering if I would be headed to Compostela after my lunch break. A parisienne starting off on the Pilgrims Way with less-than-sensible shoes.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Out loud

Le Petit has discovered a new tool to get our attention: the high-pitched shriek.

Can someone tell me how long this phase lasts? Am I looking forward to months, or (gulp) years?

Other babies whine or whimper their discontent, but not le Petit. His lungs were already earning him a reputation at the maternity ward. He no longer cries so much, but when he wants something and can't have it RIGHT THIS MOMENT NOW, you know it pretty quickly.

I keep reminding myself that a powerful voice is an important thing to have in life.

Still, if he isn't performing at La Scala by the time I'm sixty-five, I want my money back.

And if he is, I'd better have front-row seats.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Picturing Mom

Black and white photograph, baby and mother, highway overlook, Olympic Peninsula, Washington State, circa 1977. Both are looking straight into the camera, mom with a proud, protective smile, baby with a curious half-smile and one arm clinging possessively to mom's shoulder.

Color photograph, baby and mother, mountain pass with snow, Col du Bonhomme, France, February 2008. Mom's smile is wide and proud as baby looks at her sidelong, skeptical. It is the first time he has seen snow, and from his vantage point in her arms and bundled up in his snowsuit, he isn't sure what to make of it.

Two pictures, thirty years apart, and I am the union that connects them. I'm the baby in one, the mom in the other, and I took a giant leap in between. The gulf once seemed so impassable that now the obvious similarity of the two images hits me like an electric shock.

Many have told me that when you become a parent, you finally learn to appreciate your own parents. White nights, messy mealtimes, crazy infant antics that are rumored to have once been your own, all that brings understanding and gratitude. Right? Well, just as le Petit's birth didn't turn me into a full-fledged, in-my-heart-of-hearts-I-know-I-can-do-it Mom overnight (did I just say that out loud?), seeing my own mom differently since le Petit came along has taken me time.

And the thirty-one years gone by has given my mom plenty of time to fit herself with rose-colored glasses. As she recalls, I never slept as badly as le Petit did at the beginning, and I wasn't nearly as headstrong as he can be, either. I had neither his vocal cords nor his determination to make his opinion heard. So I assumed at the beginning that she had had things comparatively easy, at least up until my teenage rebellion (and if you ask me, even that was mild).

Yet when I compare the photos and I see our two smiles which hold the same love, I cannot deny that our journey is in the most important ways the same. Episodes from my childhood make sense as they never did before.

In another snapshot, my mom is crouched at kid-level just beyond the front door of our house, a basket in her hand. It is May Day, and I have been crying because my six-year-old self does not understand why, after delivering hand-picked flowers to the entire neighborhood, no one has brought me any. So my mother has gathered a bouquet of the best flowers in the garden to console me. She tries to hide unsuccessfully after ringing the doorbell, and my crying redoubles as I discover that the flowers are just from Mom.

I see now that that is so much of being a mom, trying so hard to make your children's life right and to soften the transition into the hard, real world. Le Petit is small enough now that I can make most things right with a cuddle, but that will not last. Soon the best I will be able to offer him will be a consolation prize.

What I see now that I couldn't see then is that that consolation prize is in fact the richest gift. It is the knowledge that Mom was there for me, whatever else the world threw at me. I could count on her, so I could take her for granted. Now I know how she must have felt when I skinned my first knee as a toddler or came home with my first heartbreak in junior high, when nothing she said or did seemed to make anything better.

I also know that that helplessness comes from a joy so intense that it sometimes spills over into sadness. I feel it now when I nurse le Petit back to sleep in the middle of the night when he wakes up from a nightmare. She must feel it now when we say goodbye at the curbside of an airport on the other side of an ocean. It is the price of the faith we muster to send our children out into the world.

So for Mothers Day this year, rather than flowers or a card, I humbly offer my mom a "Yes, I finally understand."

Monday, May 05, 2008

Dîner à trois

Our family getaway to the Loire Valley would not have been complete without a pilgrimage to one of my favorite restaurants, Les Années 30 in Chinon.

Armed with a decent guidebook (Le Pudlo is my current favorite), it isn't difficult to find excellent restaurants all over France. I've verified this again and again, much more than is probably reasonable over the last five years. And yet, Les Années 30 stands out as one of my favorite tables. Is it the cosy dining rooms, two low-ceilinged floors in a hôtel particulier in the heart of Renaissance Chinon? Or the limestone fireplaces with their well-stoked fires, just close enough to our table-for-two for me to warm my toes on our last midwinter visit? Is it the young, attentive waitstaff? Or the clever chef, the only one I've yet found who can magically transform French andouille tripe sausage into something even I find delicious? Three visits now and I still haven't found the answer, though I'm having fun searching.

Now I have a new reason to love the place to add to my list: they graciously attended to Le Petit during his first real gastronomical experience.

To be honest, I was dreading the meal a little. I adore this restaurant, and I was worried I'd no longer be able to show my face there again. We made reservations for lunch on a Thursday, and called ahead to make sure we could come with a baby. No problem, a high chair would be waiting for us.

Le Petit turned on the charm the minute we arrived. He was all smiles for the young waiter and waitress, who regularly stopped to talk to him and obligingly picked up his plastic keys each time he flung them on the ground. But between the starter and the entrée things started to degrade, and I remembered stupidly that a two-hour meal is a rather long time to expect a not-yet-ten-month-old to sit still. I fed him the lunch we'd brought for him and cycled through our bag of toys, but he continued to protest his boredom. Loudly.

The owner, a mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old, was gracious and understanding, and luckily there was only one other occupied table in the downstairs dining room. We finished our lunch while shuffling le Petit back and forth between our laps, and I broke down and gave him the Toy Of Last Resort, my hairbrush, to play with during dessert.

Balancing a squirmy infant on my knees hardly diminished my enjoyment of the fillet of cod in beurre blanc with violet rice, ginger, and asparagus, or the pistachio parfait dessert. My husband's roast beef with wild mushrooms and onion confit in a rosemary and savory sauce disappeared so quickly I didn't even get a bite, even if I did have to help him cut his meat while he held le Petit out of reach of the knife. I did swiftly steal some of his apricot tarte tatin with almond ice cream.

I marveled at how such rich classics of French cuisine as tarte tatin and beurre blanc can come out so light and new in skilled hands. My husband's favorite dish was the starter, ginger marinated salmon and smoked walleye, an original interpretation of the tried-and-true tartare de saumon. I enjoyed my entrée the most, for it was only once it arrived and the meal was halfway through that I was able to relax enough to taste each bite.

I will admit that I appreciated the meal more the last time à deux, when I was two months pregnant, without the distraction of a baby and when the only annoyance was having to skip the wine. But it was still a delicious experience in every way, thanks in large part to a warm and indulgent welcome, and I look forward to taking le Petit back again.

Although I think I'll wait until he's old enough to sit still just a teensy bit longer.